......unfortunately many people who ARE wait staff really shouldn't be.
That is the crux of the matter, Chefross. It's unfortunate, but most servers, themselves, see the job as menial and unimportant. They're only doing it until something better comes along; or as a way of making extra cash without working too hard; or to stretch limited college funds, etc. This attitude is reflected in how they get the work done---or not done, as the case may be.
Those who see it as a real job, however, are the ones who perform in a professional manner. And who make a decent wage at it.
Their customers feel they were treated as special, that all their needs were taken care of, that the food they were served arrived expeditiously and was prepared correctly. If a problem should arise it gets resolved quickly and with no fuss. Their server was courteous without being obsiquious, friendly without being familiar, had a pleasant demeanor, was clean and neat in appearance. And because of that gets rewarded appropriately.
Yes, a professional server works hard. And is subject to all the abuse you itemize. But hard work is not the same thing as complicated. The fact is, serving really is a rather simple job. And that, perhaps, is where we disagree.
I'm always amused, too, at the number of posts on this and similar threads, that start "I was a server, and you can't make a decent wage at it because...." Almost always, among the becauses, is the minimum wage issue. I'd be willing to bet that those who express that opinion fall into the first category rather than the second. Me, I wouldn't work that hard for a measly $7.35/hour.
When I was serving I took home more than the chef. But, to be fair, that was at a high-end restaurant in a resort community where those who left 30% were low-end tippers. So, let's look at some realistic numbers instead:
It's the lunch rush at a causual-dining establishment. Typically, you have four or five tables. In order to minimize your potential income, let's say four. Average tab on a four-top, nowadays, is about 30 bucks on the low end. And you'll turn them at least once in an hour. Let's assume, further, that all your customers are on the chinzy side, and you average only 10% in tips.
Four tables, turned at least once, results in a total tab of $240. Ten percent of that is $24. Deduct 20% of that to represent what you share with the support staff, and you'll have netted $19.20 plus whatever the current wait-staff minimum wage is (it was two dollars and change, last time I looked. But is probably higher, now).
Let's weight it even more in favor of minimum wage: You only have three tables, and, although they are four-tops, average only three patrons each. So, that's six times, call it $24, for a total of $144. Ten percent of that is $14.40, less 20% equals $11.52 plus the server's minimum wage.
Would anyone with the brains God gave a turnip really want to exchange any of that for a flat $7.35? And, don't forget, from your minimum wage you would still have to take care of the support staff.
You don't even have to look at casual dining, let alone upscale dining, to find this differential. I have a friend who is a server at what amounts to being a short-order dinner---part of a chain. Typically, during the daytime, there is a short-order cook and two "servers." I say servers but they are more than that. They serve, for sure, working both a counter and tables. But they also do all the bussing, much of the prep work, even, when the cook is in the weeds or on break, some of the cooking. They mop the floor, take out the trash, and, if needed, clean the flattop.
The customer base does not number among the big spenders when it comes to tipping.
And yet, when I recently asked her if she'd prefer working for the minimum wage versus tips. She gave me sort of a puzzled look, and replied, "why would I take that sort of pay cut?"